Let’s start with a little survey.
Here’s two options, and I want you to vote for your first gut response.
In this passage we have just read, what is Paul talking about?
Option one: the experience of a non-Christian, maybe Paul’s own past life as a Pharisee,
Option two: the experience of a Christian, struggling with sin
who thinks both?
Who thinks neither?
So we can see that Romans seven is a controversial chapter.
in fact, one of the most debated passages in scripture.
Martin Luther was sure it was Paul’s Christian experience:
It is a great consolation that such a great apostle experienced the same grievings and afflictions we do. ..
There is no sinless Christian. If thou chancest upon such a man, he is no Christian, but an anti-Christ.
Here’s a colorful website on the other side:
The Apostle Paul did not have two natures or a sin nature… he did not struggle… nor was he a wretched sinner… Pastors and Bible teachers who interpret Romans 7 in this way are blaspheming God…. have absolutely trashed the gospel
The first reason I’ve called this message crossfire is that is pretty hot:
in daring to speak on this passage, I could be caught in the crossfire
But before we strap on our body armour and dive into the battle,
let’s step back for a strategic overview of the terrain
as most of you will know we are working through Romans chapters 3 to 8,
it’s maybe Paul’s meatiest letter, full of interlocking themes, a treasure chest of theology.
Not easy to get a handle on.
Two weeks ago, Doug made a comment, which I think helps us to get the flow of the letter.
He said Romans is like the tide: several times it goes out, and it comes in
it sinks down into deep despair, and rises up again in a crescendo of hope
The first 2 1/2 chapters are a big low – the tide is right out.
Paul argues that all people are in trouble, because they’ve broken God’s law
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (3:23)
all humanity stands in the dock, guilty and condemned
But then, the tide turns.
God declares those who trust in Christ righteous, not guilty in the court of heaven.
the free gift of justification. (3:24, 28)
And in chapter 5, the tide is fully in:
therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (5:1)
we are forgiven, put right with God, reconciled to our creator, filled with God’s love and the hope of glory.
Now, we are in the second big part of Romans, chapters 5 to 8,
in chapters 6 and 7, the tide starts going out.
Paul answers some big objections his argument so far could have raised
in chapter 6, he twice asks a rhetorical question (6:1, 15)
since we are saved by God’s grace, not our own efforts, and we Christians are free from the law,
why don’t we just go on and enjoy sinning?
Paul cries out in response, “by no means”, “God forbid.”
in Ian’s translation, a month ago, “what an outrageous presumption!”
Once, says Paul, you were slaves to sin, under the dominion of death
But now, you have died to the old life, set free.
You are slaves of righteousness.
under new management.
You belong to God
In chapter 7, Paul handles a second hot potato
Paul has just written.
“our sinful passions, aroused by the law… bear fruit for death” (7:5)[i]
The law is the law of Moses, including the 10 Commandments, given to Israel at Mt Sinai.
in Paul’s mind, it’s as if there is a coalition of evil: sin, death and the law.
For Paul’s Jewish Christian readers, this would have been the question that kept them awake at night.
What are you saying Paul?
is the law itself sin?
the holy law that God gave us at Mt Sinai.
Did God’s good law bring death?
Paul asks their question,
And once again, replies “by no means”, “God forbid.”
In the rest of the chapter, Paul tells a story to show how it is that God’s law, good in itself,
has become so closely bound up with sin and death.
The tide begins to go out.
The issue of Moses’ law might not be so relevant for us Gentile Christians,
but what we learn about our lives today is
In verses 7 to 12, Paul speaks of a past time of innocence,
then God’s good law came, and we fell into sin.
Echoes of Adam and Eve breaking God’s first command. (Genesis 3)
the people of Israel, breaking the law of Moses.
Probably something we can all identify with.
Isn’t it funny, when something is forbidden, there’s a rule against it, it suddenly becomes attractive.
I heard of an old lady, who said,
“We shouldn’t read the 10 Commandments in church. It gives people so many bad ideas.”
And that’s about what happened.
The law came, and sin seized the opportunity. (7:8, 11)
The word is used for establishing a military base.
A bridgehead, from which to attack God’s creation
sin commandeered God’s good law and turned it against him.
In the first chapters of Romans, the setting was the heavenly law court
all humanity – without exception – is guilty of breaking God’s law
Here in chapter 7, we’re on the battlefield.
sin is a personified power, an alien evil force
all humanity – without exception – is in slavery under it, captured like prisoners of war. (7:14)
It’s the second big low tide of Romans.
So let’s explore Paul’s experience.[ii]
I agree that the law is good (7:16), he says,
I delight in the law of God in my inner being (7:22).
maybe Paul’s thinking of Psalm 119
I delight in your commands, because I love them (47).
My heart is consumed with longing for your laws (20).
Your decrees are the theme of my song (54).
Your law is more precious to me than silver and gold (72).
Your words are sweeter than honey to my mouth (103).
Your statutes are wonderful, the joy of my heart (111, 121)
I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands (131)
My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end. (Psalm 119:111)
but, cries Paul, I can’t
I love your commands more than life itself, but I break them
God’s law is so good, but I can’t keep it
No matter how hard I try, I always fall short
with my mind, my better self, says Paul, I delight in God’s law.
What’s wrong with me, what’s going on?
“I do not understand my own actions” (15)
it’s almost a tongue twister, expressing his own twisted anguished self,
“I do not do what I want… I do what I do not want.. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (15-20)
can you feel his grief?
wretched, measurable, unhappy man that I am.
Who will rescue me from this body of death? (7:24)[iii]
Paul has discovered there’s a battle going on
the battle between sin and God’s law.
And he is caught in the crossfire – the second reason for our title
captured by the enemy force of evil.
His spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.[iv]
Paul’s conflict reminds me of the old American Indian story.
A grandfather was talking to his grandson.
‘I feel like I have two wolves fighting in my heart.
One wolf is a nasty, angry, violent one. The other wolf is a loving, kind, good one.’
His grandson asked him, ‘Which wolf will win the fight?’
grandfather replied: ‘The one I feed.’
It’s a good story, but there’s a crucial difference for Paul:
he’s not a neutral third party, calmly watching the battle on TV,
cheering for one side, now the other, choosing which to feed,
No. the evil power of sin drags him down despite his good intentions.
in many ways, Paul is talking about what today we call addiction
think of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps:
a lot of websites put Bible verses alongside them, and Romans seven always comes up for step one:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable.
powerless over our addictions, unhealthy habits, compulsive behaviors, the sin that dwells within us.
An AA book says,
“Remember that we deal with alcohol, cunning, baffling, powerful!
Without help it is too much for us.”
just what Paul found: sin deceived him (11) and overpowers him.
Sin is an addiction
The idea that we don’t need help, we are not powerless, we are in control, we aren’t slaves
is an illusion, itself enemy propaganda.
Robert Louis Stevenson showed this in a short novel, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).[v]
probably partly inspired by Romans seven
Jekyll is a respectable doctor, a normal person with a mixture of good and evil.
he discovers a potion that will free his evil side from the good to stand alone – as Mr Hyde
Hyde embodies what Paul calls, “the flesh” or “my members” – the sinful part of my nature
for some time, Dr Jekyll enjoys indulging his evil desires, sneaking out at night as Mr Hyde.
It’s great -There are no consequences. He can never be captured.
But gradually, the dark side grows stronger.
One morning, Jekyll wakes up, sees his hand – what?
He looks in the mirror – it’s Hyde
he’s spontaneously transformed into his evil form.
He becomes terrified of falling asleep,
Double, triple doses of potion are needed to turn back into Jekyll.
Before, he thought he was in control, now he is more and more enslaved to evil.
you can hear Jekyll crying like Paul,
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:24)
the Christian band Petra have a song “Jekyll and Hyde”:
I have a secret that I let nobody see
An evil shadow that’s been hanging over me
My alter ego that I try to hold at bay
But despite my good intentions he can always get away
He does the things that I don’t want to do
He won’t do things that I know I should do
Sometimes I feel like Jekyll and Hyde
Two men are fighting a war inside
does that sound like you sometimes?
that, says Paul, is the natural condition of all humanity.
all, without exception, are
Helpless, enslaved, caught in the crossfire between God’s good law and our weak sinful flesh.
in a sense, we are back at the start of Romans – the tide is right out for everyone
“wretched man that I am!” (7: 24)
in Petra’s words,
I need somebody to rescue me
When personalities clash
sadly, for Doctor Jekyll, there was no rescue.
When he ran out of his potion, he was lost.
The last chapter of the book is his suicide note confession.
By contrast, we have hope.
AA step one is admitting that we are powerless
then comes step two:
We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Yes, Paul cries in desperation, “O wretched man”,
but then he shouts in gratitude to this power:
“thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25).
So how can we be set free from our old self, our sinful nature?
how does God rescue us?
Paul gives us two big answers in Romans.
the first was in chapter 6:
the mysterious doctrine of our dying with Christ:
“our old self was crucified with Christ, so that the body of sin might be destroyed,
and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.
For whoever has died is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:6-7)
to be set free from the old slave master, To be born again, first you have to die.[vi]
The first answer to our plight is the cross of Christ, and our participation in it
The second answer is in chapter 8, so we need a sneak preview.
Here in chapter 7, the battle is between God’s law, or our highest self trying to follow it,
and the sin which dwells in us, defeats us and drags us down
in chapter 8, the tide comes in
a new force, a new person, dwells in us to fight for the good:
now the battle is between the sinful flesh, and God the Holy Spirit.
the tables are turned.
the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death…
he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who dwells in you.
(Romans 8:2, 11)
Here is the third reason for my title “crossfire”
the solution to our struggle, torn in two, caught in the crossfire between the law and sin,
is the cross of Christ, and the fire of the Spirit.
The cross of Christ, on which the old body of sin and guilt is crucified.
And the fire of the Spirit, as on the day of Pentecost, who empowers the new life [vii]
Which brings us back to the crossfire of our opening question:
can Paul’s description in Romans seven include mature believers?
one side argues, no way!
Christians have victory over sin, they’re set free!
they’re not “sold into slavery under sin”, defeated and failing to overcome (7:14)
on the other side: delighting in God’s law, wanting to please God.
That’s a sign of the Holy Spirit at work.
you can argue both ways, and as we saw at the start, people get pretty passionate about it[viii]
I’m pretty convinced the normal Christian life is a mixture of victory and ongoing struggle.
That’s why Paul talks about salvation as both in the past – already, and in the future – not yet
If we have been united with him in his death,
we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection
(Romans 6:5, 8).
We have died with Christ – already justified, forgiven, made right with God, in the past – chapters 3-4
and we will also live with him – final victory over sin, full salvation and glorification, in the future – chapter 8
right now, we’re in between:
So two weeks ago, John called his message “I’m yours” – We already belong to Christ.
And Alan continued with, “Yes, Lord, but I still mess up.” – We’re not yet fully free from sin.
so if you are wrestling with weakness like Paul right now, be encouraged
it does not mean you’re spiritually immature or not a real Christian.
In fact, the very opposite
anguish over sin shows the Spirit is beginning to renew your mind and shape your character[ix]
One Romans scholar put it like this:
The farther people advance in the Christian life, and the more mature their discipleship,
the clearer becomes their perception of the heights to which God calls them,
and the more painfully sharp their consciousness of the distance
between what they ought, and want, to be, and what they are.
so, in fact, I hope that we’ve all experienced Paul’s frustration in some area of our lives
I hope we’ve all glimpsed somewhere the beauty of holiness, a greater goodness we can’t yet live up to.
If not, try pondering 1 Cor 13, Gal 5, Matt 5 – and ask, does this describe me as much as it could?
I’ve prayed through 1 Cor 13 once or twice and found it a humbling experience.
Imagine a kid, who hears a violin Concerto by Bach or Mozart.
As the soloist soars above the orchestra, they fall in love with the music.
They long to play it themselves.
Just like Paul delighted in God’s law
So, they rush out and start taking violin lessons.
And they discover an extreme dissonance between the sounds she makes, and that high vision of beauty
– again, like Paul
As a teenager, I learnt the violin.
And my sister, in the bedroom next to me, says my squeaking and scratching didn’t quite get there!
In my defence, she learnt the saxophone, and the sax can be hauntingly beautiful.
It can be…
On a more spiritual level,
I’ve read a little bit about Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu.
These guys really embody the Sermon on the Mount –
Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemy, returning blessing for cursing,
I’d love to be like them.
Such freedom from baggage like bitterness, such capacity for selfless love,
It’s incredible and powerful and beautiful.
but guess what?
I feel all inspired, and then
I pop into the supermarket, just a few items in my trolley,
coming up to the checkout, and someone shoots in front of me. And their trolley is overflowing!
Desmond Tutu tells of a woman who embraced the guy who burnt her son to death, and said “now you will be my son”
Martin Luther King could love and bless the racist police officer who was putting his dogs on to him.
And here I am, stewing and simmering over the most petty, trivial, probably half imaginary offence,
man, I’ve got a long way to go.
“There is an eagle in me that wants to soar,
and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud”
(poet Carl Sandburg [1878-1967]).
But for those, unlike me, who persevere in music.
The day comes when all the drills and scales and arpeggios become second nature.
Suddenly, for a few bars, you forget the mechanics, and you are the music
even if only for a moment, it clicks, it flows.
It can happen with learning to ride a bike, drive a car, speak a language…
How would you describe those moments?
words like gracefulness, freedom, maybe power, beauty, spring to mind
very gospel words.
Very biblical Holy Spirit describing words.
Don’t you long for that day in your spiritual life?
But, man, sometimes the process of ongoing sanctification seems so painfully slow.
Fighting sin is like playing spiritual Whac-A-Mole
you know, the fairground game, where moles keep popping up from holes,
as hard and fast as you knock them down they pop up again somewhere else.
greed – whack! Envy – whack! check out that sexy mole… oops, Lust – whack!
Man I’m doing well, what a great Christian… Oh no, pride – whack!
I’m tired of the struggle, time to relax… sloth – whack!
– sometimes it’s a war of attrition, it seems hopeless.
“O wretched man that I am! I’m sick of this struggle. Who will rescue me?”
thanks be to God, who doesn’t leave us stranded in defeat.
by the cross of Christ he has already set us free from the penalty of sin.
by the fire of the Spirit he is now setting us free from the power of sin.
Who saw the movie The Matrix?
Remember those cool scenes where the Agents are shooting at Neo.
The bullets are coming in slow motion, and he’s twisting and turning in all sorts of contortions to dodge them.[xi]
For a while he succeeds, but then he’s hit, he’s down.
Does your struggle with sin sometimes feel like that?
Tying yourself into convoluted knots, desperately trying to avoid those darts of the evil one,
and sooner or later, some strike home.
There’s a conversation in the movie that struck me.
Morpheus tells Neo that where others failed to defeat the evil agents, he will succeed.
Neo asks if he means, because he can dodge bullets?
No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.
Remember the later scene.
again, the Agents attack. Again, the bullets fly.
But this time, Neo just stands there, and the bullets stop in front of him
he looks with mild interest at them for a few seconds, before they drop to the ground, and he keeps walking.
The forces of evil realise they now have no power over him.
The Agents run.
For you and me at the moment, caught in the crossfire,
Struggling with sin, desperately dodging the darts of the evil one – yes, that’s life.
but when you and I are ready,
when he who began the good work in us has brought it to completion. (Philippians 1:6)
We won’t have to twist and turn and struggle with sin any more.
Evil, temptation will have no power over us
like when a spark falls upon an ocean, your holiness will quench it in a moment. Spurgeon
high tide is coming!
the hippopotamus will grow wings!
blessed are those who have admitted they are powerless and know they are spiritually poor,
for a Power greater than themselves will restore them.
blessed are those who mourn like Paul over their failure, for they shall be comforted,
rescued by the cross of Christ and the fire of the Spirit.
blessed are those who delight in God’s law, who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be filled
(Matthew 5: 3-6)
[i] “Law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied” (5:20)
[ii] there is debate about whether this reflects Paul’s personal autobiography, but for convenience, we’ll just say Paul..
[iii] The ancient Roman philosophers found this same dilemma: “I pursue the things that have done me harm; I shun the things I believe will do me good.” (Horace). “I see and approve the better course, but I follow the worse one” (Ovid). Centuries later, the Jewish psychologist Freud said much the same as the Jewish pharisee Paul. Our conscious ego is caught in a struggle between the id – “the dark, inaccessible part of our personality. . . . a chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement” – and the super-ego, something like the conscience, the socially acceptable and respectable part of us. As a result, “the ego is not master in its own house.”.
[iv] the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn
[v] In the novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is frightened by what he sees in himself. He asks:
“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?”
[vi] “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)
[vii] Romans chapter 7-8 tells a sort of conversion story. In chapter 7, the fall from innocence into sin and death (7:9). awakening to a sense of spiritual slavery-our passage for today, realising our complete helplessness, that we can’t save ourselves, before the salvation of chapter 8.
[viii] Here’s the explanation that I find most convincing and helpful: the common Jewish understanding of history, saw two ages: the present age, and the age to come. (Matt. 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; Gal. 1:4; Heb. 6:5; 1 Cor. 10:11.) the present old age, under the power of sin and death, where God seems painfully absent. The age to come, the new golden age of life and freedom, filled with the presence of God’s spirit.
When Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, Christians realised the new age had already begun, while the old age was not yet over. So these two ages are currently overlapping. The struggle we see here in Romans seven is the impact of this tension between the two ages on our individual lives. In Romans six, Paul said all humanity is in Adam-the old sinful self, that will die, but Christians have a new self in Christ, and so a sort of double identity. that’s why the preacher Spurgeon called his message on this passage, “The Dual Nature and the Duel Within”. and in Romans eight, unambiguously describing believers, we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:23)
[ix] “do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2
The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. Galatians 5:16
[x] it’s the experience of most great saints and heroes of the faith. Remember the Prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament. probably a more godly man than most of us here. he had a vision of God, sitting on the throne, high and exalted. angels flew around, crying “holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” and Isaiah cried “woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips”. (Isaiah 6:5)
[xi] one website put it, “The air sizzles with wads of lead-like angry flies as Neo twists, bends, ducks just between them.”